September 23, 2005

Context as ingredient and container…

In part 1 of my examination of “context” in journalism, I approached the question of what we mean by “context” from the point of view of the reader who may charge that a particular article lacks context. What do they mean when they say it? One answer is:

The story journalism tells is always the story of the context (the rhetorical situation) of journalism. As long as it constructs, structures, and mediates the stories of others, those others will always feel their contexts have been lost or ignored. Cries for context, then, are cries to walk a mile in [another’s] shoes (which, it seems to me, is impossible).

To ask that journalists provide more context is to ask them to consider different narratives. And if they can “see” a standard narrative structure, and if that narrative is compelling based on their structural biases, then journalists will provide that “context”–albeit appropriated by journalism for journalistic purposes.

This prompted two interesting responses:

1. Marc Schneider in the comments to part 1

But I’m struggling with something that has increasingly bothered me about journalism–or perhaps more accurately, about the epistemology of journalism. How do we deal with the fact that journalism operates in this noetic field and that any particular presentation will necessarily privilege some points of view over others? I guess my issue is how do we deal with the fact that there may not be a single “truth” in a situation but a multiplicity of “truths”? Can we realistically expect journalism to provide these multiplicity of truths?

2. Jay Rosen in the comments to part 1

I thought you might say what I would say (how dumb is that?) which is that context is always related to purpose. This, I think, is how a pragmatist (in the philosophical sense) would see it. If our purpose is the recovery of memory, that might be one way of adding context. If our purpose is “making sure this doesn’t happen again,” that would point to another. If the purpose is “helping Missourians cast an intelligent vote next month,” that might tell you which context to add.

So to the question: “well, which context should we add?” a pragmatist would say: depends on your purpose in telling me this story, what’s your purpose here?

Today I’ll begin making a stab at context from the journalist’s point of view. Then, with a little luck and enough time (i.e. more parts to this essay), I’ll try to tie the two together somehow.

Jay and Marc ask a similar question in different ways. And before I begin to answer them, I want to bring in a third voice. Here’s what Stephen Baker had to say:

Here’s a simple test for necessary context: Is the story misleading without it? For example, if you point out that Company B’s stock has risen 5% in the last year, but neglect to mention that it’s still 80% under its 2003 peak, the reader’s getting a false picture. If you write that a Democrat on the judiciary committee is supporting one of President Bush’s Supreme Court nominees, you should also mention that eight or nine others are opposed or uncommitted.

Simple stuff. The point is that news writers are usually covering only a sliver of history. They often can provide the necessary context with a thoughtful sentence or two–and too often they (we) forget to.

It is not at all surprising to me that Baker would call this “simple stuff.” The current epistemology of journalism encourages such thinking (although the challenges to it are mighty). And the narrative bias of journalism encourages such thinking–particularly because narrative bias encourages journalists to see the world in terms of binary oppositions, the stuff of conflicts, plots, climaxes, resolutions, and denouements. For Baker, adding context appears as simple as getting the other side of the story.

The problem is, however, that this structure is artificial; it is applied to the world in order to make some sense of it. In reality, there are many many “sides” (contexts, truths) to a story. And if the journalist fails to adequately cover a particular side, then the members of that side are likely to think the story lacks context (among other things).

I told students just yesterday in class during a discussion of Chapter 2, “Truth: The First and Most Confusing Principle,” from The Elements of Journalism: “It is not possible to cover it all. You cannot represent all truths and contexts in a single news article. Good journalism, instead, unfolds over time. It’s a mistake to think of it as product of discreet units limited in time. Journalism, as a whole, gets at the truth eventually.”

So how do you choose? You have to choose. You have no choice in that matter. Journalism is a product of an editorial process, and it is limited on any given day by time and space (among many other things) depending upon the medium of delivery (among many other things).

I think the first way that journalists choose is by conforming to the purposes of the profession. I conceive the purposes as some combination of the structural biases, news culture, professional practice, and socio-political intentions (e.g. “The purpose of journalism is to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing.” from Elements). And this takes us squarely to Rosen’s suggestion that context is related to purpose. I think that’s an astute observation–certainly rhetorical, which warms my heart.

So let’s go in that direction for a while. I’ll start, and end this part of the essay, by quickly examining context as metaphor. Then I’ll take up Tim Schmoyer’s questions regarding intention. And finally (I hope) end this series with some statement that attempts to bring reader and journalist together regarding “context.”

Journalists generally understand context as an ingredient or a container.

Context is an ingredient: If a story lacks context, we must add it. By adding context, we are increasing the volume of the story, making it more substantial. It becomes something we can chew on and digest. As an ingredient, it is part of making the story whole or complete. In this metaphor, the story–the finished meal–is a combination of ingredients that creates an irreducible whole. Without a particular ingredient, the story is incomplete (half-baked?).

Context is a container: If the news situation is bigger than any particular story, then journalists may think of context as a container. The story must be put into context. Context is something like the whole truth, and the story is a part of that truth. If not put into context, the story appears to float, to become detached from meaning. It becomes merely a disconnected moment. Once put into context, the story becomes part of the whole and is understood in conjunction with other stories.

These metaphors show us two initial purposes in journalism: 1) Make sure a story contains all the necessary ingredients, and 2) Make sure a story gets into the proper container (truth, context). These are not necessarily opposed or exclusive.

Baker says, in effect: It’s simple–add the proper ingredient. Rosen asks, in effect: Yeah, but to whose taste? Schneider wonders, in effect: How many diets can and should we possibly consider?

To be continued…

Part 1: Considering the ‘C’ word